Category Archives: Musings

“Time to turn back and descend the stair” (TSEliot)

At coffee yesterday I ran into my handyman and his new bride, a handsome, happy couple.  We chatted.

“Have you been to the night Noodle Market?”

“No,” I answered. But lest they think me a dull one, I rushed my words:

“I started the first Noodle Market in Sydney. When I was an Alderman. At North Sydney. After I had seen night street stalls in Asia.” All true.

But did they care? No

He looked at her. “She’s very active’” he explained,

And there you have it – the young unknowingly, albeit fondly, patronising the old as that was how I supposed they saw me. The initiatives, the struggles all counted for nowt. I was simply an active oldie.

I had another taste of aging on Friday night. It was the 50th anniversary of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties. About 1000 people there and afterwards, thinking on it, I realised I was possibly one of half a dozen or even the only one who had been at the inaugural meeting.

Not that I knew much about what I was doing then. A young undergraduate (I went to uni. at 16), I was simply pleasing some young man with my presence as girls were wont to do in those days.

But maybe I do myself a disservice for later someone came up and said: “You remember me? You made us all go to the cricket and collect money for South African Defence and Aid even before apartheid became an issue.” So yes, right back then I was committed.

But it made me dwell on 2 things…on aging and on what could be one of its blossoming tendrils, a recall and acceptance of the achievements of life.

The physical aging milestones from the first grey pubic hair to last week’s cracked tooth have little to recommend them but now I am dwelling on the emotional and spiritual progression.

I was educated in a Catholic convent; although it gave a strong sense of who you were it also drilled in the flipside, modesty. The 80/20 rule was rampant in my generation. You know the one. If women get it right 80% of the time they agonise about how they got it wrong the other 20%. For men, vice versa, they are proud to say, “Look at me I got it right 80% of the time.”

Anyway emotional aging means that I will reflect on things I have done and instead of beating myself up over the 20% of personal failures, I will be bold enough to reclaim all those small achievements …… the first noodle market, the first Sydney anti-apartheid action and all those other things. Perhaps one day I will even proudly list them on this blog.

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Yesterday was my last day at the prison. Over the past 8 years for a day every fortnight, I have visited the Sydney jail which houses women in maximum security, mental health and reception wings.

Official Visitors are statutory appointees and as one, I have had free access to all these prisoners (except in one extraordinary case) to hear complaints, fix problems, take up issues – a bit like a hands on Ombudsman.

Yesterday was bittersweet. Over the eight years I have come to know some inmates well. It is sad that I will not be able to continue checking their wellbeing and progress. It is a shame that I will not be able to continue fighting, from the inside, for the rights of women behind bars.

Last week these women gave me many hugs. The only woman in jail for life gave me the gift of a hand made notebook. I felt was deserting them.

It has been a two way street. I thank many of these women who have shown me the value of patience, resilience and “getting on with it”; who suffer so many idiot indignities yet have learnt to fly under the radar so they don’t make it worse; and who know the consequences of idle gossip better than anyone I have ever met.

Wandering into every corner of the jail never once did I experience anything but respect; never once threatened. A great lesson in: “you get what you give”.

Many is the day I have come home and had to unload on someone near and dear. Witnessing the pain and the failures in the system could be too much for me to hold in. Over the years the physical jail changed from the presenting as a remnant Victorian “mental hospital” to a more modern institution. The ‘non-physical’ jail remains as frozen in time as it was.

In the 8 years there were more than 8 General Managers or acting General Managers. I, and some inmates, were some of the few with any corporate memory.

Why am I leaving? Well the Minister appoints and the Minister taketh away. In my case I was offered a change of scene – Long Bay men’s. My knowledge and expertise has been built up with the women. What a shame the system did not see fit to capitalise on that. There is no appeal and not even a letter of acknowledgement. This lack of acknowledgement was more insulting for one Visitor who had served conscientiously for 23 years and simply received a short letter saying she was not re-appointed. Another didn’t even find out she had had the chop until she turned up at her appointed jail.

Full of grace and manners this NSW Government!

Anyway… I have kept every email, every quarterly report and every reply. Hopefully I will continue to look out for some of the saddest women in our society by writing about their conditions.

“Warehousing, waste or rehabilitation?” might be one theme.


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“I grow old, I grow old…I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” (TSEliot)

A weird week.  My recent trip to PNG saw one tiny experience in my life come full circle; this week I learned of the deaths of 3 people from my past and talked again with two women, once intimate friends some 20 years ago.  Life moving to full circles all round like the early effervescence of a bubble bath.

Perhaps these circles herald the drumbeats of getting older. A flurry of deaths demands to be noticed like previous ones:

Doug had been the best man at my wedding, a trailblazer in Asia- Pacific anthropology as one journal described him. In the sixties when almost still a boy he had gone to live with the Dayak people in Borneo. We shared a house briefly on his malaria-plagued return.  What an exotic path he chose. What led a boy from Newcastle to decide in the 50s that when he grew up he wanted to observe remote and different cultures, to live in longhouses in the jungle? Why didn’t I strive to stay in touch? I never do.

I didn’t know Tom had died either. Such a friend in the past that he would drop in on Christmas mornings with a box of ripe mangoes. We had weekends away and he never questioned working hard on any of my campaigns. His obituaries talked again of a trailblazer, this time in television putting together programs of conscience honouring the ordinary person and just causes. He was also a rare eccentric once setting up an office in the lift of the ABC when he was denied one of his own. I hadn’t seen Tom for years before he died. I had taken umbrage at some, probably unintended, perceived intrusive judgement on my life and always intended to hold out an olive branch. It is sad I didn’t. Must reflect on friendship.

Elisabeth was an acquaintance, a journalist and author, one of those people whom you know of and you know they know of you. Recently we met, became Facebook friends and I had resolved to finally get to know her. Her obituaries overflowed down to a new dedicated website. Tributes from her friends and colleagues showcased a personality and a life to be admired: “ deeply concerned about social justice but she came at it without any cant”; ”awesomely direct, passionate, she was loyal, independent: she was a wholly original person”; “a searingly honest and curious person with a mischievous sense of humour”.

These 3 had in common their passion, dedication and perhaps a touch of eccentricity. All were trailblazers – in anthropology, in television and in writings. I muse over why so many of the people I know of my generation seem to have been such achievers. I come up with two explanations; growing up in the 40s and the 50s there was so much more available to discover and innovate together with more opportunities, and it was a smaller society so it was reasonable that interesting people brushed up against each other.

Whence the passion for social justice? Australia was starting to break free of the cloying insularity of the British suburban, paternalistic, white Australia Menzies model (that we seem to be reverting to). The Age of Aquarius was coming over the horizon. We were the post-war lucky generation and anything was possible.

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